The Big Interview with Joe Plant – “I was never going to be blind. No matter what happened.”

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

It is seemingly quite fitting that someone who has written several substantial books on various historical topics would be situated just a stone’s throw away from the National Trust’s Antony House, in a quaint English cottage dating back to 1601.

Joe Plant’s works have included histories on Malaya, National Serviceman and life as a soldier’s wife in the 20th Century, using his mother’s diary as the basis.

What is even more impressive is that, following a car accident early on in his life, Joe is completely blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. He has not let that hinder him in any way, having gone on to write hundreds of thousands of words and conducting countless hours of research in the process.

We started our interview discussing his history, though. Born in 1936 to a veteran of the First World War, Jack Plant and his wife, Irishwoman Sarah, Joe’s formative years following the end of the war were spent in Heron Road – an area of London that had been badly hit by German bombers.

“We grew up in an environment that created a sense of opposition and rivalry…To us youngsters, these bombsites amongst the shells of houses and piles of rubble became the battle areas for many streets gangs playing war games.”

For many of the wartime generation, familial loss and tragedy were all too often an occurrence. Joe lost his sister, Mary, to consumption. It was discovered on an x-ray during a medical when she went to volunteer for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

“She died from it in 1947. Her room where she slept and died was fumigated and sealed off for a month. Then Dad caught it and so did Michael, my brother. Mum also caught it and was bedridden for six months.

The loss devastated the family. Throughout the 1950s, Margaret (Joe’s other sister) and he had to have an X-Ray every six months at St. Thomas’s Hospital.

When he came of age, it was time for his first job:
“My first job was a trainee draughtsman. That’s all I wanted to do.
My dad wanted me to go into the Post Office, but I didn’t want that.
I worked on the big boilers in St Thomas’ hospital.”

The short stint didn’t last long though, being called up for National Service in May 1954.

“Laid on the doormat downstairs was the dreaded brown envelope. Separated from the other letters, printed on the back were the letters ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’. It wasn’t my birthday for another six weeks!”

‘I went to Honiton and then to Great Malvern. I made some good pals in some Jocks, and we all volunteered for the parachute regiment. We didn’t want to stay in England. We’ll go oversees and just lie on the sands! We all got Singapore.

‘When we left Singapore, they marched us down to the armoury and drew ammunition and rifle. We got on the wagons to the station, went across the causeway. Burt and I were picked to be the first two on guard.  said ‘now you’re on active service!’”

“I ended up in Ipoh in the middle of jungle!” Ipoh was right in the middle of the Malaya – and he arrived bang in the middle of the
Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

“MUM I WANT TO COME HOME! We didn’t volunteer for this!”
After World War II the Federation of Malaya was formed through the unification of several former British territories, including Sabah and Sarawak. The negotiations included special guarantees of rights for Malays (including the position of sultans) and the establishment of a colonial government.

These developments angered the Communist Party of Malaya, an organisation that was composed largely of Chinese members and was committed to an independent, communist Malaya.

The party began a guerrilla insurgency, and on 18th June, 1948, the government declared a state of emergency. British efforts to suppress the uprising militarily were unpopular, especially their relocation of rural Chinese into tightly controlled “New Villages,” a measure designed to deny the rebels a source of food and manpower.

Under the leadership of British high commissioner Sir Gerald Templer, however, the British began addressing political and economic grievances. In the early 1950s several measures, including local elections and the creation of village councils, were introduced to facilitate independence.

In addition, many Chinese were granted citizenship. Such actions decreased support for the insurgency, which had always been limited. By the mid-1950s the rebels had become increasingly isolated, but the emergency was not formally declared over until 1960. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the young National Service lads knew how to have some fun to ease the stresses.

“We played football on a Wednesday afternoon with a rugby ball. About 50 of us chasing a rugby ball around. Broken noses and all sorts.

‘It became a hilarious game with masses of blokes chasing a rugby ball about. Someone would kick it in the air and it would bounce in a different direction causing an ensuing mass to fall over each other in a heap.

‘By the time the Sg Referee blew the final whistle, all players were walking wounded and knackered!”

After seeing two Christmases come and go in one of the most testing regions in the world, during a violent episode in its history, it was eventually time to go home: “about bleedin’ time!”, Joe couldn’t help but say.

“When I got home to Blighty it was freezing cold and they lost my kit bag. They found it about 10pm and I got to Hammersmith  on the bus and I knew where I was then! I had never been to Heathrow before in my life.

‘But I had to get back to Aldershot that night to report in. I got to Charing Cross and I thought, “Bugger that – I’m going home.”

‘I phoned home and told dad to get some beers in! Mum had put about 15 hot water bottles in the bed!”

Joe’s father, Jack, had been a regimental quartermaster sergeant by the time he left the army, so when Joe told him he was Absent Without Leave (AWOL), he gave him an ear full. He woke him up at 4 the next morning to make sure he got back to camp at a reasonable time.

‘C’mon son, get up. You have to get back to camp’. He handed him some money to get a cab to Waterloo.

‘Cheers Dad, see you in three days’ time when I am finally out of the bleedin’ army!”.

Unbeknownst to Joe at the time but he would end up there for another three weeks before finally being demobbed.

“ did provide me with a chance to see other places and culture of life that possibly I would never have ventured out to see.”

After finally leaving the military world, he would start a successful career at Foster Wheeler, a Swiss global engineering conglomerate. He would spend more than a decade back doing his dream job – a draughtsman working in the nuclear department.

It was on nondescript night, with the local pub, The Crown, as the background, that he would meet the love of his life, Annette.

“In walks this ash blonde. I remember seeing her and going ‘That’s the girl for me’. I married her.” Simple as that. On 5th September 1959, they were married, going on to have three children together, before she sadly passed away in 2012. “She was my rock”. Not long after, Joe was involved in a car accident that would change his life forever.

“I was blind for four months. I got three hundred  compensation from Kingston Council because there was shingle on the road.

‘I ended up in Moorfield Eye Hospital for four months.”

The injuries he suffered meant he had to have his right eye removed, while his left one was left with a considerable scar.

In a funny turn of events, however, his time in hospital would bring him within touching distance of another historic event.

“I heard that  Clay was fighting  Cooper. I asked the surgeon if we could put the fight on. ‘I don’t know – I’d have to ask the matron!’

‘In the end he said we could listen to it, providing we were very, very quiet. ‘I know what you’re like!’, added the surgeon.

Henry Cooper would end up in the same hospital as Joe to have his eye stitched up after the fight.

Joe was determined not to let his accident hinder him. And he succeeded, going on to have a successful career as a purchasing manager, which saw him travel the world, even living in Norway for four years.
In retirement, he has taken to writing books.

This was not necessarily a difficult challenge, having always had a creative streak. As you walk into his house, his hallway is decorated with a multitude of paintings and drawings that he has produced over the years.

His process for books is quite simple:
“I delve into things. It’s only facts I put into books. I don’t like this wishy-washy narrative.”

One of his proudest achievements to date was turning his mother, Sarah’s, diary into a trilogy – ‘The Adventures of a Soldier’s Wife’. It details her life with Joe’s father, Jack, including their time in India where they had Joe’s older brother.

Joe was also a keen footballer in his day, eventually playing for and captaining St Anne’s Football Club in Vauxhall. He would go on to use his other skill, writing, to produce the club’s full history.  Now, though, he is working on a book about an issue very close to his heart.

“I am working on book about St Dunstan’s for the Blind, which is now Blind Veterans UK.”

Blind Veterans UK was founded by Arthur Pearson, who had himself lost his sight due to glaucoma. Because of the increasing numbers of British soldiers returning from the front lines during the First World War suffering from blindness (especially from mustard gas attacks), Pearson established a hostel for these soldiers as well as blinded sailors and airmen. His intention was that, with training and assistance, they could go on to lead productive lives and would not have to depend on charity.

The Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Hostel’s first location was in Bayswater Hill, London. Shortly after, the organisation moved to St Dunstan’s Lodge in Regent’s Park (the site of Winfield House), along with its first 16 members. The Committee’s work was praised by the London press at the time – a reference to the Lodge appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1915, which said: “in a corner of London’s most beautiful park is a house where miracles are worked”.

On Pearson’s death in 1921, the chairmanship fell to Ian Fraser, who had been placed in charge of the charity’s after-care activities by Pearson, providing assistance and social events such as reunion meetings for the blinded veterans after they had left the hostel in Regent’s Park.

Fraser had served during the First World War in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and was blinded by a bullet on the Somme. Having become generally known by the name of the building in which it was based, the organisation then formally changed its name to St Dunstan’s in 1923. Fraser remained as chairman until his death in 1974.

It wasn’t until recently, though, that Joe fully knew what Blind Veterans UK did.

“I remember my Dad used to give me a penny to put in the St Dunstan’s box when I was younger, but I didn’t know anything about Blind Veterans UK.

‘I ended-up going to a coffee morning and the Chief was there. He said: ‘We are looking for someone to write a book about Blind Veterans and what their achievements are.’

‘What I am trying to achieve with this book is to start the story with one single bullet. There was one private in the Lancashire Regiment, and he got shot in the right eye. I will then take it through about who St Dunstan was, then into Sir Arthur Pearson and the way he built it all through.  I didn’t know anything about any of this when I had my accident.”

At 83, Joe is as active as ever – and still determined to do what he can to document the stories of all manner of people. During our two-hour conversation, the most inspiring part was how it finished:

“I always said to myself that I was never going to be blind.
No matter what happened.”

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